From a distance Urqin looked almost like a child, but standing closer, his wrinkled skin, broken teeth interrupting a gaunt face, and his grey hair gave him the look of someone very old.
He was neither. By age he could still have been a warrior, but he preferred warmth and talking.
"Hevne has begun a war and called calamity upon us in a time of misfortune. The Fire Isles will come for our land. The second sun is imminent. Can a mere child deal with that?"
Jibrith shook his head.
Urqin took that gesture as agreement and moved in closer.
"What say you, Jibrith?"
Jibrith had no idea what the man had said. He was too intent on watching the ends of Urqin's greasy, greying hair slide along the shiny stains on the collar of his formal Advisor cloak. It was customary for an Advisor to wear a cloak only when on business but Urqin wore his unfailingly. He was proud of the cloak, very proud of his role as Advisor and infinitely proud of himself.
"I said," Urqin repeated with feigned patience "If Hevne does not return, who is left to lead us? A fourteen year old boy?"
To declare that Jibrith heard nothing when Urqin resumed talking at him would be wrong. Jibrith heard the sodden slap of Urqin's lips as he spoke, the slushing of his tongue inside his mouth. He heard the scrape of Urqin's phlegm-layered throat when he sniggered and the sopping explosion of spittle when he whispered loudly.
Urqin had been one of Hevne's father's Advisors though both Hevne and Jibrith were unable to understand her father's choice and were sorry that the Advisor role was for life. Hevne was often grateful she had other Advisors who would provide less egocentric advice.
Silent minutes passed. Jibrith turned to face the speaker. He had recognised the grating voice, of course, but he was in no mood now to deal with someone who grieved for the stars when the sun rose and mourned the sun whenever the stars shone. Not now, not with Hevne and her warriors trusting their fate to the steel in their hands. No, Jibrith would have sought the confident spirit of youth or the hale welcomes of old drinking friends tonight. Alas, it was not to be.
Urqin miraged a smile. Jibrith didn't return it; but then, he didn't try.
Strength and capability. But not the inexperience of youth. Not the foolishness. Not the rawness.
Deep in thought, Jibrith did not notice someone stand behind him until his voice spoke quietly.
"Those young men, sent to battle, what do they have to commend them? Years of hard work, years of experience in a trade, years of fighting ledgers and balances. That is all they have to commend them. It is also all they have to defend themselves with."
Though he knew this to be true, Jibrith made no reply nor did he turn to speak.
The voice said no more.
Jibrith watched from the harbour wall as the vessels surged on the rising wind and thrust out to sea. He watched them disappear into waves made fire by the setting sun, shielding his eyes first with one hand then another.
But still his eyes stung, still they watered.
Long after the ships disappeared, he stood alone.
Long after the sun set he lowered the shield of his fingers, long after the stars emerged he stood alone.
At his side his sword hand flexed and his muscles tensed and relaxed. Oh how he longed for the strength and capability of youth.
But regretting her own decision was not something Hevne did.
If you bear no regret, her father once told her, you've made no decision and if you make no decision you cannot lead.
Thus she had decided Triu's fate.
But next time... she repeated, whispering.
Then she stood again, stared into the darkness and craved battle. She was a different Hevne, now, different from Big Sister Hevne.
Now she was Hevne the Warrior, Hevne Slaughterhand, Hevne the Slayer, Protector, Leader.
"Next time I will grant your wish, brave Triu," loudly she told the sea. "Next time, you shall to war."
But when fire burns, it burns itself too. The sun drowned, the sky darkened, sails paled.
Stars jewelled the night. Hevne, still at the prow, sat back on her haunches and sighed.
Triu would doubtless be beside her had she bade him come, and she imagined him standing close, saw her hand reaching up and taking his hand.
But was this fear tainting her thoughts? Because she knew they needed his extra hand in battle? A hand strong, skilful, brave.
Oh how proud she would be to stand with him.
"Next time, little brother, you shall to war. Next time."
And with that, the Fists boarded the small boats that took them out to their vessels. They moved silently: from land to small boat, from small boat to fighting vessel, the only sound the messaging of gulls and the million stories of the sea whispered wet against the sides of boats and harbour walls.
The preparations completed, the sails were pregnant with a fair wind and Hevne stood on the prow of the lead vessel staring into the flaming horizoned sun. Behind her, a phalanx of twelve sails blazed a golden fiery red as they sped their way towards conflict.
"We sail through the night," Hevne shouted, "For we have never feared darkness. Nor shall we await their assault, we will force the battle onto them, for neither do we fear battle. We will reach the Bronze Isles before dawn and we will cleanse them of their pestilence, for we know no fear: no fear of darkness, no fear of battle, no fear of tomorrow...
"The wind rises. Gulls - " she looked up at the seagulls crowding the sky, disturbed from their nests by the commotion below, "call to wish us well.
"Now! Remember your families. Remember why we sail."
Hevne had spoken to her warriors. She'd told them what they already knew: that the peaceful folk of the Bronze Islands had been slaughtered by the foe from the Fire Isles. That before them, many others had perished by the same foe. Kamkarra was next. That was the truth of it.
She told them also what they didn't know. That in the hammer of conflict they would all be blessed with a hard heart; that their women and children would firm their grip and steel their resolve.
That if any warrior died, he would die so his children remain untainted.
Before the harbour wall, six hundred warriors stood in Fists, rigid squares of forty nine soldiers, each square of seven men by seven headed by their commander. Twelve Fists, fifty raw warriors in each.
On the sea, twelve single masted sails slowly unfurled, lowering from the top spar like the stretching of a silver dragon's wings when it awakes. They were plain grey in colour, though at half-furl and in the red of sunset they appeared blood-sodden and scarred.
The wind rose, catching the half-sails and making the masts creak and the anchor ropes and chains groan.
She turned to leave this high place. There was no longer any point staying. She had paid her respects at the High Shrine of Enkarra and had talked with Jibrith. He had provided no wise words, but he had not advised against her plans, and that was solace enough. Triu, aah! cheeky little brother! - she smiled, despite her fear - he always followed her advice and he would stay in Kamkarra, she knew. This time. But in future?
"Let tomorrow's tomorrow tell it's own tale," she said aloud, descending the steps into the harbour town.
"Tonight, we all must say farewells."
A gust of hot air rose around her and a few strands of fair hair danced before her eyes, elusive like memories, not quite seen but intimately felt, tickling the skin of her cheekbones and prickling like vague recollections. She pushed the strands back off her forehead with her fingers, simultaneously wiping away the tear that ran down her cheek from the pools of her eyes. She was glad Triu had already left her.
She did not know why she wept. For Triu, too young to die? For Jibrith, too old to fight?
Or for herself? Because she was afraid.
She sighed, suddenly aware of the smallness of her own existence beneath turning skies. She yearned for her father to appear beside her, as he had done when she was young, dispelling her fears with words and laughter. But she stood alone; since his passing her fears were hers alone to banish.
Then, in the soft wind - as if carried gently from beyond unknown horizons - she heard her father's words as he stood beside her:
All leaders are alone. It is their curse. But never forget alone does not mean friendless. And that is a blessing which outweighs any curse.
Together they descended the steep slope of Sentinel Mount. Below them, the white stone walls of the Gardens of Remembrance and beyond, the houses of the harbour town, white and gleaming like bone in the sunlight. Beyond that, the harbour, and fighting vessels, unadorned with sail or weapon. On the comatose sea they seemed asleep.
Above them all, Hevne looked down, watching Jibrith and Triu become smaller and smaller in the great portrait of sky and bay. Unseen, Fear lay in wait over a shimmering, trembling horizon.
All lives are small, she thought. But we do what little we can.
"You are right, Jibrith. I, too, must understand this. Hevne would look for me, even in the very hammer of battle, That could prove her undoing."
Jibrith pulled Triu to him and hugged him quickly before pushing him away.
"Triu, you have grown too tall, even for hugging! But I believe you are growing in sense, too. No battle is won by force alone, but by intelligence and force, and you are displaying great intelligence now. No longer a boy, Triu, you are a young man. And I say your time will come, and it will be soon."
Hevne raised her eyes and looked far out to sea. She saw no sign of fear. Nor of death.
But that's where they waited.
Rumours of death preceded rumours of battle and fear, such was the brutality of the attack and the swiftness of the victory on Silkarra. Such was the wading in bloodshed and tears.
With the darkening of Hevne's face, Jibrith knew all argument would prove futile. He held Triu's wrist and led him down the steep slope of Sentinel Mount.
"Would that I could go with Hevne," Jibrith said plaintively, "but I would be merely a distraction."
"I would not fight and lose, sister. With muscle and sword I have bested all men -"
"Boy, your sister has governed this land since your father left for the Great Feasting. Has she not governed with wisdom?"
"Yes, but she has no wisdom to see I am ready! She doubts me, Jibrith!"
"I doubt not your ability nor valour; you best all men, Triu. But it is not men we fight."
"Who, then? Who do we fight?"
Hevne and Jibrith exchanged glances. Hevne frowned.
"I do not know, little brother. I do not know who we fight."
"When do we sail for Silkarra, big sister?"
"I sail when the sun sets," Hevne replied. "You sail when you are old enough."
The smile fell away from Triu's lips, but the look on Hevne's face stopped his argument.
"But I am able, sister. Look. I am strong. Tall. I am quick. I best the men at wrestling, at - "
"You best them, Triu. I know," replied Hevne, conciliatorily. But she gave no quarter. "Yet you are young. Fourteen is not an age for fighting."
"Nor an age to die," she would have added, but cautioned silence.